Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Writers and Research

In BookEnds LLC today, Jessica posted about "The Things Authors Know," talking about interesting things writers come across while researching their fiction.

Have you ever found yourself at a cocktail party quoting some new and interesting fact only to suddenly recall that it came from fiction? I’m always amazed by the things you can learn by books and the odd facts that authors know.

I've learned a lot through the fiction I've read, but one of the most important things I've learned is never to just assume that what's in a story or novel is accurate. [rueful smile]

My addiction to historical romances started young; I was twelve when my mom began sharing hers with me. In high school I read a couple of Scottish Clan books and had a brief obsession with Culloden and the '45. Unfortunately the one book (novel, remember?) I had which dealt with it in any detail said that it was in 1845 rather than 1745. What's even better is that I did a paper on Culloden for my senior Western Civ class and used this (historical romance) book as my main source. (Hey, I was seventeen. [duck])

I actually used a nonfiction book to "check" my facts, per my teacher's direction [cough] and when I saw that the dates in the history book were different I decided that the historian who wrote it had obviously made a mistake. I used "1845" in my paper from beginning to end, and stood in front of the class the day it was due and gave a presentation in front of everyone based on that date.

My teacher had this horribly confused expression on his face and he asked me (rather timidly, in the way of someone who's not quite sure he'd had enough coffee that morning) whether I was sure it was 1845. Being nothing if not self-confident back then, I assured him I was. He obviously didn't check because I got a B on the paper.


I eventually ended up majoring in history (although my focus was neither Scotland nor the eighteenth (or even nineteenth) century) but one of the things I learned long before getting back to college (long story) was to be skeptical about everything. Just because someone's a published writer, even if they have a string of degrees after their name, doesn't mean they're not mistaken or biased or possibly even stupid.

And a fiction writer might bend and twist history (or anything else) deliberately and for good story-related reason. I came to love writers like Judith Tarr, who includes author's notes in her books explaining exactly what she messed with and why, and where the more fantastical ideas came from. I don't at all mind a writer who twists reality (or just uses a less-respected [cough] theory) in order to improve the story, so long as they own up to the twisting.

As for my own example of being mistaken, biased or possibly just stupid, I'm very glad none of my later history professors ever saw that paper on Culloden. :D


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